Friday, October 31, 2008

Fame!

Fame! Part One: (if you are in a hurry, skip Fame! Part One and go to Fame! Part Two. Fame! Part Two rules!)

Thursday night, T, K and I get to be on TV. Tarn’s professor’s friend’s friend’s friend (‘s friend?) works for HTV Saigon, and she gets us tickets to be a part of a live studio audience for a Vietnamese Opera Idol Show. Ten judges preside up front with scoring laptops and the subdued audience holds up huge photo placards of each contestant when they appear on stage.

The opening number is filled with beautiful women wearing the traditional Ao Dai (pronounced ow yai) (silk pants with a long silk flowery dress over them) and lots of lilly pads. Then, each pair of contestants, male/female, perform an opera. Each theme, from what we can gather, is “extreme sadness in relationships.” Each duet has two similar components: every woman cries and every man either carries a bottle of wine or is visibly stumbling drunk. One of the main judges is sitting right in front of us, so all three of us are on the screen quite a bit; however, the camera angle mostly captures K and T for long periods of time. We have to keep straight faces throughout the show. Despite the very sentimental and, um, somewhat “limited” genre, the voices are beautiful in a tonal, mournful way.


Friday morning, Halloween, K runs to Thuy’s fabric stand to buy some white material to make “Halloween Ghost Balls” for PE. When Thuy sees her, she lights up. “Katherine! Katherine! I see you and Tarn on TV!” Katherine high fives her and they have a good laugh, but here is the really funny line. Thuy says, “I didn’t know you like that kind of music!”

Fame! Part Two:
I wrote about my 6E homeroom class last week, how they decorated my room for the Halloween competition completely on their own initiative. Well, 22 classes enter the contest and every single one of them goes all out. The school designates Thursday afternoon as “decorating day” to replace clubs. Entire rooms are being transformed into mazes lined with foil, black plastic bags and red lighting. My sixth graders come to school depressed on Thursday; they put so much work into my room, but they know it is going to be far surpassed by the upper classmen.

So I make a suggestion. I tell them that everyone seems to have similar “haunted house let’s grab people” themes. Maybe if we do something completely different we will impress the judges. I show them the Thriller video and of course, Dancing Kim (6E has me for Ancient, so they have not been a part of horror story week). Here’s what we come up with:

A dark room, blackened with dark material, with flashing red lights, ghosts hanging from the ceiling and desks around the periphery. When each judge enters the classroom, Death (Terry) opens the door wearing a hood and holding a sickle and says, “Welcome to Hell.” Then, immediately, a werewolf (Jack, complete with full werewolf animal costume) hops up on a desk and howls, which is my cue to start the music (not the video) at exactly eight minutes and fifteen seconds into Thriller when the zombies are emerging from their graves. Every single member of 6E, most of them dressed as vampires or zombies, then begins to emerge from his/her own “graves” under the desks to the zombie mourning sounds and surrounds the surprised judge, who is by then in the middle of the room. After about ten seconds of emerging and circling the judge in a zombie walk, the dance music begins and they begin to dance Dancing Kim’s “Zombie Claws” around him/her for another ten seconds. When I stop the music (they make me hide under my desk so no one can see me and it’s tricky to work the controls), they all yell “Boo!” and “Happy Halloween!” and say things like, “You’re so handsome!” or “You’re so beautiful!” and then give the judge “Trick or Treats.” As each judge leaves the premises, they chant, “Vote for 6E!”

That’s the cute part.

The Not Cute Parts: When Jack calls Anna “fat.” Or when Jack calls Anna a “bad dancer.” Or when Jack calls Anna a “Bossy Cow.” (All of these things are later translated for me by Helen~ Anna is the one in the grey dress, Helen the translator for Nam and me is next to her~she is your friend's new pen pal Megan.) Or when Ms. Alice must bring her 7th graders upstairs and mediate between them and my 6th graders because they are going to “tear Rian up” for stealing their sickle (until they find theirs) or when for two days, my room is a complete disaster and I cannot hear anyone speaking even two inches from my face because 6E can break a sound barrier. Or when I bring some black material that I plan to have made into a dress to cover the blinds because I figure I can wash it if it gets dirty only to look up to see 25 Halloween holes cut into it. Or when an eighth grader punches Death (Terry) in the face when he opens the door because he is scared.

Another cute part: Remember Mr. Jung of the Black Market connections? The one who wears bright pink striped shirts and who should be clubbing instead of sitting at a desk? He dresses up as a woman for Halloween (yup, has been living for it) and when he walks by, I ask the kids if they want to practice our performance for him. Well, everyone loves Mr. Jung so they all cheer and set up the action. When Mr. Jung enters the classroom and is surrounded by zombies, he performs some delightfully terrifying screams, and when the music begins, he cannot contain himself. He starts jumping up and down, up and down, shaking it like The King of Pop, and he and 6E have a dance party.

Anyway, after the three judges see our performance separately (and we perform about twelve times for others as well), all of the kids want to go through some of the haunted rooms to wait for the verdict, to be made at 4:15. I am down on the third floor with five “scared” sixth grade girls clutching my arms waiting to go into a maze of clowns when the announcement is made.

“We have chosen a winner!” Mr. Eric says. “Room 408!”

It takes us a few seconds to process it: room 408 is our room! WE have won! It’s pandemonium. We run upstairs to congregate and we are all jumping up and down and cheering. It’s absolutely glorious.

We get the prize upstairs on the 6th floor: the worst pizza of my life (shrimp, eggs, onions on two of them). But it doesn’t matter. 6th graders have prevailed over the entire school, and I am more excited about it than they are.

Nam is waiting for me at 5:00 with some huge prawn crackers to try on my way home. I’m dying to tell my mom, “We won the Halloween competition! I teach sixth graders and we beat the entire school!" (I have someone tell him why I’m wearing a school uniform in the morning since he is quite confused when I emerge on to the street for my ride and he gets it quickly…Halloween is gaining momentum here--but they have never had candy corn, Amy, and they think that is SO very cool, and by the way, they love my student uniform). But of course I can’t explain any of it. On the way home, though, when we are at a stop light, he turns around and points to my eyes. “You are tired,” he says. Yes, mom, I am SO, SO tired.

But it's been the most fun Halloween I've had since the second grade when my dad made me the coolest Martian costume ever (complete with lighted antennae). It may be impossible to beat that~however, "FAME! 6E's going to live forever..."

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"YO! Marjorie!"

When I described the scene where Nam gives Katherine his poncho, none of you pictured him walking up behind us and yelling "Marjorie!" did you? I know he can walk, because he has taken two steps away from the bike to get my Number One breakfast, but his bike is part of him. I am aware that I take this detail for granted; I need to remember that you all have broken necks and blank minds regarding Vietnam, right? (from my 6th GRADE! post). All of the mototaxi guys are that way~their bikes are their legs. All of them have designated spots on the street where they lounge around on their bikes waiting for customers. I bet Nam has had his legs since 1959 (age of his Honda SuperCub).

Today he is supposed to pick me up at 6 pm at the gym. Usually, he gets there about twenty minutes early and waits outside the gate. Tonight I get there early and he's not there. At 5:59 I begin to dread having to hire another driver when he comes speeding up the street. He never speeds. When he reaches me, he lets out this big belly laugh and points to a clock in a nearby store. "6 o'clock!" and then something like "I made it by six o'clock!"

Instead of dropping me off at the door, I ask him to drop me off at my wonton soup stand. Another belly laugh. Now I have heard it twice in one day (I've never heard it before). He thinks it's so funny that I am eating at this stand. I ask, "Is it OK with you if I eat here?"

He shrugs and nods yes, but I know there is more to the story; after all, this dialogue is with Nam and it's about food and it's a stand I have chosen on my own. When I am done eating, I decide to go straight to the Bum Bum for a massage (I didn't actually work out at the gym, another story...but didn't want you to think I would go all sweaty for a massage with Tran). Remember that Nam's extended family lives a few doors down. I am out in front of the salon when I hear, "YO!" (I swear, his call sounds like "YO!") and "Marjorie!" He has found me again. This time, he has his poor nephew in tow for translation purposes. The version I am going to tell you is about one tenth of the length of the real version, because Nam repeats everything he says at least three times. Here it is:

"My uncle want to know, did you think the soup good or bad?"

"Good!" I answer. Here we go.

"He says he knows a place much cheaper and better. Between here and his village. Next time tell him you want soup. He take you there."

("He want to know, was the soup good or bad?...etc, etc.)

You know you will be getting the Nam's Village Soup review very soon.

Other news: today I sent an email to Mark, my principal, suggesting that -in the spirit of American 6th grade camp tradition- we take the entire 6th grade class to Angkor Wat in Cambodia as part of the ancient history curriculum. He wrote an email back saying that he thought it was an interesting idea, but that he worried about child kidnapping and a possible war between Thailand and Cambodia. I told him I didn't remember child kidnapping or war being a part of my sixth grade camp at Fort Casey. He suggested we go to Hoi An in Vietnam...it's supposed to be amazing.

And...I go to the office girls' room today and ask if I can buy a t-shirt and track pant uniform combo. The girl looks simply horrified. "For students, not for teachers!" She doesn't understand when I say "It's for Halloween." I must go and get another girl I know who speaks English. She comes to the office and tells the girl and they both giggle over the idea. I'm sure she assumed that I planned to wear the uniform to teach in, which, actually, sounds pretty good!

And...everyone got word of 6E's decorating extravaganza. Now 6E is very upset because "Everyone is copying us" and "6C destroyed some of our decorations while you were gone. We hate 6C!" and more drama, drama, drama. We aren't learning anything this week, but thank goodness there are still some places in the world where you can find Halloween in its pure form!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Three Cool Things

When Nam drops me off at school this morning, Helen translates a few things for us about some errands after school. "Can you pick me up at 4:00?" "OK, 4:00." Helen and I turn to walk toward the building and he calls after her again. She turns to me and smiles, "He want (sic) to know your name."

It's funny that he would choose today to ask. Katherine asked on Sunday if Nam called me "Marjie" or "Marjorie" and she was shocked when I told her that, despite the meet and greet with his entire family and the six weeks we have been in each others' lives, that he has never asked my name. "Well, he must know it, somehow," she said. I tried to tell her that there was no way he could know it, that it just didn't seem important to him, but she would not accept that. And then today, out of nowhere, "What is your name?" I go back and tell him, "Marjorie." (I'm getting used to using my formal name here.) He repeats "Marjorie" a few times. When he drops me off tonight, he says, "7 o'clock (tomorrow morning), Marjorie?" It was really, really sweet, the way he grinned when he said it.

Perhaps I got back into his good graces this morning when I asked if we could stop for breakfast at his #1 place. That made him so happy. He negotiated that line as if he had the most important job in Saigon.

Then, this evening, K and I are walking out toward the main street when the slight drizzle turns to rain. K left her poncho at home, but I had grabbed mine at the last second. Just as I say to K, "Do you want to go back and get yours?" we hear "Marjorie!" from behind us. It's Nam, The Omnipresent. He points to K and then to the sky; he is concerned. She waves it off, but next thing we know, he is taking off his "Vietnamese American Trade School" blue and silver poncho and handing it to K. He tells her to give it to me and I can give it to him at "7 o'clock." Nam is the best mother ever! K gets such a kick out of him, too. She says, "He's a character, not just a Vietnamese character, but a person character." She is right.

Another cool thing: I bought a "thank you" card for Thuy last night and all three of us signed it. I wrote something in very bad Vietnamese..."The dinner was very very very very delicious!" This morning I drop by her booth to give it to her and she is visibly touched by the gesture. She laughs at my Vietnamese "very very very." She has a great sense of humor. Still wondering what to do about her generosity. Alice says I must simply accept it.

Another cool thing: We receive an email yesterday at about noon ~ it says that all homeroom teachers are in charge of facilitating decoration of homeroom classes for Halloween. Many things at this school are just thrown together like this...all for the right reasons, but then we teachers must scramble to do everything asked of us. Since I received the email after I saw my homeroom class, 6E, on Monday morning, I was planning to come up with a plan with them after lunch today ~ I have them at noon on Tuesdays. Tuesdays we have staff meetings at lunch, so all through the meeting I am trying to brainstorm something creative for the contest. A pizza party is the prize. It's going to require a lot of energy.

When I climb the fourth floor staircase, I see one of my students outside my very dark classroom. She ducks in quickly and says something in Vietnamese. As I walk in, they are all still trying to hide. Things are hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, the lights go on and everyone jumps out from under the desks. "Happy Halloween, Ms. Marjorie!!" they yell. I am dumbfounded. These kids found out yesterday about the competition and planned everything overnight; they know I have meetings on Tuesdays at lunch and they all met and decorated for the entire hour. They made cute little ghosts that they hung from the ceiling and put strips of black cobwebs everywhere. It looks so great...all I could do was just laugh. As I laughed they clapped, they were so happy with themselves. We spent another 20 minutes of class time planning our attack. My oh my do they want that pizza party. We will decorate for two more hours after school on Thursday rather than have club day. When I left today at 4 pm, they were in there decorating some more, so who knows what I will find in the morning.

We are "encouraged" to dress up on Friday. I am in a group of three teachers planning to wear the AIS yellow and blue school uniform. I think the kids will like that...any other ideas?? Shannon, K's friend at the elementary school, is using a seamstress for the first time this week. What is she having made? A beaver costume (she's Canadian). The sky is the limit!

Monday, October 27, 2008

You Tube Fun

Both "Thriller" and "King Tut" were total hits with the kids today. "King Tut" was especially great, though, probably because Steve Martin is just so dorky and his movements are so easy to imitate, while Micheal Jackson, well, he is a dancing genius and pretty hard to imitate. For a memory from 1979, here is Steve Martin (my sister and I wore this '45 out! Remember, the lyrics are so inaccurate they shouldn't be played for an ancient history class!)

(I could not embed this video; click the link below!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP7AJiQM2RI

Imagine a classroom full of 6th graders (and me) doing this.

And, if you have never seen Michael Jackson's "Thriller" (I'm thinking of my parents), here is the link, in honor of Halloween: (the famous zombie dance is about nine minutes in if you don't want to see the storyline):

(I could not embed this video; click the link below!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtyJbIOZjS8

Then, I highly recommend watching this next video, which is of an entire prison yard in the Phillipines doing the Thriller Dance (I found quite an interesting "Thriller" subculture while preparing for this):


http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMnk7lh9M3o

And, finally, a really, really funny "80's Dances, How to do 'The Thriller'" where "Dancing Kim" shows you how to do it. She does give very simple instructions for parts of the complicated dance, so I showed it to them, and again, every student was up dancing like a zombie. High school kids have lunch during one of the periods we did this and they were all peering in the window at us. My students didn't care at all!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=byx8kt0O_mk

OK, that is all for today!

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Fried Fins and Fish Fights

This picture is taken just minutes before 1) it begins to pour and 2) Thuy and I have a fight in the middle of the street.

Thuy picks me up on her motorbike at 3 pm sharp for Sunday Night Cooking. We have planned this extensively...it has taken many trips to the fabric booth to make sure I have the right ingredients for Elephant Ear Fish salad rolls. I have purchsed the rice paper, seasonings, fresh basil and the lettuce and this morning she gives me a little goodie bag of salt(yay) MSG- that's what Katherine thinks it is (yeah), limes and red peppers.

We drive past Ben Than Market...she has done some asking around and has been told she can only get this particular fish at a market further out. Katherine and I ran into her yesterday while she was eating clams at a little stand in the alley and when we tried them and liked the dipping sauce, she said we were going to make those for our Sunday dinner, too.

So when we arrive at the fish stand, she orders the fish (live in the bucket) and while it's losing its life, she asks for some clams. She takes out her wallet to pay and I say "Thuy, wait, no, I am paying!"

She says, "I pay for these, you pay for fish."

Well, OK.


But she doesn't let me; she pays for the whole thing. "Thuy, you can't do this! There are three of us..." When I try to give her a 200,000 VND bill ($12), she stomps her foot and says, "Maggie, you make me sad!"


And I say, "Thuy, you make ME sad!" We do the fight/dance to give the money and then...

There is a pause and we both laugh. And we also realize that it has started to pour. "Maggie, we go home." But not until she has purchased cooking oil, wet noodles and a few more vegetables.


For the second time this week, I am drenched when I get home, despite my poncho.


She soaks the fish in water (to get rid of the fishy smell) while she makes the dipping sauce: fish sauce, hot water, sugar, red pepper and lime. She cleans the fish under the gills and rubs salt on the inside while she heats an entire bottle of cooking oil in the wok. Katherine and Tarn are present in the living area, checking out the process as it goes, but they are also watching and dancing to Katherine's new pirated DVD: Disco Inferno. The Village People, Sister Sledge, The Jacksons, Donna Summer, James Brown. Thuy stops a few times to laugh at the funky costumes, especially the Village People. I don't think she has ever heard "YMCA" before...




When the oil is hot, she drops the entire fish in and it cooks for probably about 15 minutes. As it cooks, the scales puff out. She also makes a sauce for the top: she fries onions and peppers and mixes it with vinegar and cornstarch. The EE fish is a delicacy. She tells me that she saw it cooked in a restaurant once and that's how she learned to make it.


When the fish is done, it is completely crispy on the outside. She pours the sauce on the whole thing and we set everything on the table. When Tarn and I ate this fish in the Delta, the girl who fixed it for us removed the scales. Thuy does not. She makes us eat the fins first, before we even start to roll the fish up. They are crispy and taste like chicken skin. And the scales make the salad rolls CRUNCHY!
The way you make salad rolls: take a dry, round piece of rice paper and place lettuce, basil and rice noodles in the center. You pick the EE fish apart with chopsticks and place the crunchy yet tender fish on top, roll the whole thing up and dip it in the fish sauce.

I made it clear to Thuy the other day that she HAD to eat with us this time. She agreed, but now she just wants to watch us enjoy it, so I refuse to eat until she has rolled one up for herself. She laughs at my stubbornness, but I laugh right back at her. Yum, the rolls are so so tasty. And the clams are simple- just right when dipped into the sauce.

She gives Tarn most of the head. He is so great to have around (better him eat the head of honor than me)! And she gives Katherine the other, smaller part. Here she is staring at the fish eye (did you know they have eyelashes? she says). And me, well, she just wants me to eat the crunchy fins. She makes us eat the whole fish. And then, at the end, she tells Tarn to "wash up" yet again. Just as abruptly as last week, she says, "I go now."

Here is the "after" picture...note there is no head, because Tarn was required to eat it.

I saw cooking classes listed at a tourist office yesterday...$75 to make a basic meal--a three hour class (a rip off, knowing what things cost here). But our fabric woman is coming to our house and buying our food and making entire meals for us. And she is in for the long friendship haul. It's crazy and cool. I really cannot believe the life we have found in this alley. I'm going to have to think of what to do about her generosity. Maybe I can make her Mexican food one night? I will think it over. Katherine and Tarn are amazed at our fortune, too. No one else at either school has found anything even close to what we have.

Something else interesting happened today. Well, I mean: what I'm going to write about now makes the cut to write about here...everything seems interesting every day and sometimes I cannot decide what to write about. Anyway, I am at Lady Saigon, a women's gym right down the street (Tarn thinks it's a "special house," but it's not), and for the second week in a row, I am alone in the gym except for one woman- the same one as last week. We begin a conversation this time (she is fluent in both Japanese and English) and we end up talking for the entire hour on the treadmill. She is bright and articulate and manages a bunch of people at a Japanese export company. She talks about communism and why most people in Saigon love Americans (I will write about this later this week because it's something that has been brewing) and about her hope for Obama's presidency but her skepticism over whether America will elect someone "with black skin."
To shorten this story for today, at the end of the hour, she is a little sheepish, but she asks if I might be interested in teaching English to the people she manages two nights per week. "Im sure you get so many requests for this..." If they can speak English, she explains, they can deal with the Japanese. She tells me she paid a guy $1800 for three months last year- two nights per week, two hour classes -but she doesn't want to hire him back. She thinks I would be perfect. Her company is in District 7, and she will send a driver out to get me and bring me home. She wouldn't need me until February, so we agree to talk in another month or so. It's an interesting proposition - the pay, for here, is quite spectacular (at least ten dollars an hour over the going rate).

After Linh leaves the gym, I am alone. What do I do? I try the CRAZY exercise machine. The FAT JIGGLER. It's horrible. Not only does it jiggle my fat, but it makes me really, really itchy. My curiosity is now satisfied. Actually, right now, so are both my soul and my stomach.

I'M in 6th GRADE! (all day long!)

Two of my band members forwarded the same email to me within the last week. When Amy and Karyn forward something, I pay attention, and I advise you to do the same!!

This post is about Vietnamese 6th graders in 2008, but if you would like to take a trip to the 70's or 80's and crawl into the skin of a sixth grade girl from that generation, check this out...I laughed at every single thing listed, it's called "If you were a little girl in the 70's":





By the way, I have Alice Cooper's song "18" going through my mind as I write this (Jessica, it's the counselor in Freaks and Geeks' version, though), only these complicated lyrics go: "I'M in SIXTH GRADE (guitar riff...) I'M in SIXTH GRADE...(another guitar riff...)"

For me, 6th grade is filled with so many good memories, and most of them involve my BF Jaci: Friday guitar sing-a-longs with Mr. Watnabe and Mr. O'Donnell ("One Tin Soldier Rides Away," yelling "Green and Yeller!" at the top of our lungs at the end of the song- school colors of Oak Heights), crushes on Kirk and Troy and the two of us finding Valentine presents in our desks (which we still have yet to acknowledge), Vampire stories at every slumber party (levitation included), 6th grade camp at Fort Casey, when we got "I'm with Stupid" and "Stupid's With Me" rainbow glittery letters pressed on to our light blue t-shirts, square dancing with Kirk and Troy every Friday (we didn't acknowledge them then, either), riding the pony "Buster" from up the street to death, and then one of Laurell Lund singing "Love Potion #9" for the talent show (I still remember her plugging her nose and closing her eyes and taking a drink).


Good memories (except, oh yeah, I had to wear my sister's hand-me-downs). Perhaps that is one reason I really, really enjoy my students. They are in such a fun, innocent yet awkward phase, and I remember it all so clearly. My three English classes are writing penpal letters to three sixth grade classes at the school where my mom used to teach and where she still subs: at Westhill Elementary in Northshore - these pictures (signed) will accompany their (very cute) letters.

These students have added such a fun element to my life here and I hardly mention them. I'm thinking of a few vignettes to capture a bit of what it's like to teach them. Here you go (but first a little bit of anger):

I AM ANGRY AT THE WORLD

Why did "the world" decide only within the last ten years that all 6th graders needed to learn Ancient History? My mom always says it's her favorite subject, but somehow I missed this curriculum. I loved 6th grade, but we sure didn't learn any history, especially ancient. I am mad at the world for not demanding it earlier. I love learning it now. Life is finally making sense. We have studied Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, Phoenicia, and the Israelites so far and are moving on to Egypt next week. The Israelites I know well...I have their stories memorized because of the blue "Bible Stories" book my mom used to read to us every night (by the way, my mother has much better legs than Nam does...his are so skinny!) Anyway, I am fitting in all of the other civilizations around the context of the Israelites for myself now, but my students can tell you all about cuneiform and Hummarabi and the Assyrian "wallpaper of death"- (we call it).

YOU'RE STILL DEAD!

They can all tell you the gods of Mesopotamia, too, because they wear their god nametags every day and have taken on their god/monster personas; they can all tell you which god, goddess or monster each student represents. Loren is Humbaba, the monster that Gilgamesh kills in the cedar forest, and he doesn't like it that he died so early in the unit. Every day he mentions something about wanting a new identity in front of the class, and every day I just have to say, "You're still dead, Humbaba" and the class erupts into laughter. I even put it on the test. Another kid, Jack, is the sun god "Shamash." The kids call him that now, all the time and he writes his new name on every assignment. Every day, they ask me, "When do we get to become new gods?" and every day I tell them, "When we get to Egypt!" but they keep asking, so I just keep answering. We will change gods Monday. All of them ask me "Which is the most powerful god?" and then "I want to be Ra!" (Therefore I have an elaborate number drawing system in place.)

Anyway, the lack of knowing where I come from is what I will blame for all of the confusion I have felt in this lifetime. I can only hope it's not too late to repair.

POINT PERFECTION

I have mentioned before that I started a table point system for all of my classes. I have five classes altogether, two ancient history and three English. I have a different schedule every day, which is nice as far as breaking things up. I begin and end with different classes and have each class for one block period (2 hours) every week (because PE needed a two hour block since they have to be bused to another venue for each period). All other classes are 55 minutes. I have only ever taught 90 minute periods, so it is kind of nice.

The class pictured here, 6C (English), is my favorite class, only four girls out of 17 kids. They LOVE to learn. They LOVE to read stories. They LOVE to score points, and have become neurotic about it. One way they can earn a point is to be in their seats with their books and notebooks out when the bell rings. Lucky, who is pictured in the lower left-hand corner, started this thing with his table, "The Disasters," that he would rush them all to class, make them get out their supplies and sit with their hands folded, completely silent. The Disasters started to rack up the points, so all of the other tables caught on to Lucky's method. (We also call Lucky "Elvis" because he wears his hair in a pompodour. He's the coolest kid ever.)

It was getting to the point where all of them would rush out of their previous class and up to the 4th floor in order to just sit quietly. Last week, Alex- who is pictured in the very back with the glasses - he is the one who reminds me of my nephew Devon - was all out of breath when he got to class. "We were all waiting at the door of Mr. Iaian's class and when the bell rang, we all ran out and he called after us and said, 'Where are you going in such a hurry?' and they all yelled back, 'We are going to Ms. Marjorie's class!"

To have teachers know that 15 eleven year-olds are running to get to my class made me swell with pride...but, oh, wait..."Alex, did you tell him about the point thing?"

"No! We were in too much of a hurry!'

Perfect.

But it got to the point that they were arriving within one minute of their previous class, even during their ten-minute break where they are supposed to get a snack. The whole class, on two occasions, sat there with hands folded, without a sound, until they got a point. On both occasions, as soon as the bell rang, hands would go up, "Can I go out?" (it's how they ask to use the toilet). So I had to squash it.

THE MAN IS MADE OF WAX!

Sometimes, when I have a few minutes at the end of class, the kids love to play hangman. I put long phrases from the book we are reading on the board and they try with all of their might to solve it. Right now we are reading Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary. I love her books. This one is about a boy who writes to his favorite author from the 2nd grade until the 6th grade, and how he works through some tough times through writing to him. Part of the story is that he wants to be an author, too, and the first story he tries to write is about a ten foot wax man who drives a truck across the desert and melts a little each time. So one day the puzzle is "The man is made of wax."

Picture this: They are all at the edge of their seats, staring at the puzzle with the most intent expression on their faces. The bell is about to ring and the whole class is on the verge of solving it. It is Table 3's (The Extrasensory People) turn to either guess a letter or try to solve it when the light goes on in Alex's eyes.

"Miss Marjorie, I am ready to solve the puzzle!" and as the bell rings, Alex stands, points at the puzzle and yells, "The MAN is MADE of WAX!" and his table erupts into cheers and jumps and hugs for this last-minute victory. Talk about high drama! I had "The MAN is MADE of WAX!!" going through my head all day long. So funny.

WHAT THEY THINK IS WHAT MATTERS

There is a talent show coming up on November 15th. It's a BIG DEAL. The school has hired a director for it. Both the primary school and the high school get two hours for acts, and the kids are crazy practicing their performances. Five of my girls are doing a hip hop routine and they have asked to practice in my room a few times. Only one of the five actually looks good doing the routine, but all five of them think they look good. One of them wears her hat sideways and she is the worst dancer of them all. But they are so cute, and I always think of Laurell being so much more brave than I would have ever been, plugging her nose and closing her eyes on that stage so many years ago...

LILLYWHITE

Another of my favorite students is Kevin, pictured in the very back of the close-up stair picture. Other teachers struggle with him, but I love his sense of humor. If he is the worst of the behavior problems, you know we have it easy. Kevin's nickname is "LillyWhite," which evidently is the name of a famous breakdancer. He and his friends practice breakdancing in my room many mornings...no one else will let them and I think it's harmless. I find it so funny to look across my classroom and see a bunch of spinning legs in the air.

WHAT IS 'IRRITATED'?

Sometimes, these 6th graders get a little too excited and they are hard to quiet down (surprise, huh?). The other day I stopped and leaned against the white board until they were quiet. They got really, really quiet, because, you know, they hate to disappoint their teachers. I said, "I'm getting really irritated with you right now." And I paused again. Silence. Finally, Kevin raises his hand. "Ms. Mar-jore What is 'irritated'?"
How, oh how, can you stay mad?

BROKEN NECKS

I came up with a fun way to teach descriptive writing. My goal was to get them to describe HCMC using details. I told them that their penpals in Seattle had blank minds when it came to what life is like here. I put them each in partners and had one facing the back wall and one facing the screen. I projected interesting/funny pictures on the screen (Brian your picture of Oscar and the wine glass generated the best pictures) and told the ones facing the back wall that they had "broken necks and blank minds and couldn't speak." The ones facing the picture had to explain the picture and the others had to try to draw it within five minutes. At five minutes, I would say "Your necks are healed!" and they would turn around to see the image on the screen. They loved this. I think it helped them with their descriptions, too. For the rest of the week, if someone left out important details, someone in the class would say, "Broken Necks, Blank Minds!"

NO SYMPATHY

It's funny, so many teachers tell me they feel sorry for me, having "6th GRADE... (guitar riff)" all day long. I accept their sentiments, but really, I'm having so much fun. Plus, I think I have a very high tolerance for immaturity, especially when even the 'bad' kids are very sweet. This morning, I am downloading "Thriller" because we are reading horror stories for Halloween (and Band Member Amy sent me candy corn, cobwebs and spider rings, too!) and I am teaching them the Thriller Dance. For Ancient, I found Steve Martin's "King Tut" on YouTube (never mind that the lyrics are not accurate nor do they make sense...) I have 85 students who love it when I act stupid, and what's not fun about that?
Phew! I finally wrote about "SIXTH GRADE (guitar riff)!"

Friday, October 24, 2008

More Scriber




Yet another Scriber Superstar...another Costa Rica Kid. Article from the Herald:

Pretty cool, Justine!












http://www.heraldnet.com/article/20081023/LIVING/710239974&SearchID=73333941070737

Smarj and Sbill, circa 1981-82




Sent by Band Member "KUMMA" on request from Band Member "BRIAN BOWKER." My band members are supposed to take requests, not make them...

Sbill says:

Ask and ye shall receive... Complete with rainbow suspenders and hat. Why would you EVER hang out with this dork? Heh-heh... seriously, one of my favorite pictures EVER.



Smarj replies:

I wasn't hanging out with you, I was hanging out with the coolest dude around...ET. Who are all of those other critters surrounding him? They are so creepy. Isn't that Humpty Dumpty? And is that a bunny hugging a turtle? Next to a Care Bear? Something tells me I was in charge of decorations for this Tolo. Was that yet another senior class president duty you passed on to me?

Among low-seated smiles near dinosaur piles/

First, Rita's One-Minute Poem (I really, really doubt she did this in a minute, but we'll just humor her):

Holy dog!
She's blogged bunches of frog...
With escaping fish amid bowls delish
Among low-seated smiles near dinosaur piles
And Pho-get-me-not images of villages within
Her sanctity of castle and sweet! salty! food...so zen.


"Among low-seated smiles near dinosaur piles..." I love that line, especially. When I read it a second time, I got a different image for "dinosaur piles" though!

I want Rita in my band. Band members? What do you say? She could play the One-Minute-Poem Instrument when the spirit moved her...? (Rita, it's not up to you, it's up to my band...)

As I write here in my Rapunzel room on this Friday evening, there's a downpour outside. The strange thing about today: it's the first morning in two months that we have woken up to rain. Heavy, heavy rain. I usually head out the door at 6:45 to give myself 15 mintues to collect all of my market goodies for the day. But I'm stalling a bit this morning, thinking of what to do about the morning monsoon, and K, T and I are standing on the "third floor inside deck" when we all jump at the sound of the doorbell. Who could be at our door at 6:45 am? We all head down the stairs together, a spooked Lion, Scarecrow and Tin Man trio, and...who else? It's my mother. Nam has come to get me, curbside. He's keeping my seat dry, trying not to look too proud of himself.

I really, really need the market food this morning, but what can I say, other than smiling a "thank you" and "just a minute." I grab my monsoon poncho and we head out. It's practically hailing, though, and I realize pretty quickly that the poncho is worthless today. I'm soaking wet when I arrive at school. When Nam sees the state I'm in, he is at a loss. His maternal instincts are strong, and he tries to problem-solve for me. But I just shrug my shoulders and say "Oh well!" He finds this funny and mimics me. "Oh well!" he repeats with a shrug, and I wish I could tell him later that I called back to the castle and thankfully, T and K were still there. I had locked my room, but K and I are the same size, so she packed a bag of her clothes and a towel and within 30 minutes, I had dry clothes. But of course I can't tell him.

On Wednesday, I bought the same kind of breakfast that Nam introduced me to (ribbon noodles, fried dough, basil, bologna), but I wanted to try one I've been eyeing in the market. When I emerged on to the street, Nam took special note of the to-go container, but casually hung it around the hook below his handlebars, as usual. But when we got to school, he took it off and motioned to me, asking if he could take a look inside. He is so predictable. While he is taking off the rubber band, Helen and her friend Jessica run over to meet me. Nam lifts the lid and I already know what his response will be: he is disappointed. He says to Helen, "Ask her why she didn't go to the Number One place?" I told him that I just wanted to try this one in my market.

While I am explaining this, I am already regretting my words; I can feel what he feels and it's this: it would be the equivalent of me taking someone who has never had a taco to my taco bus on Rainier Ave. S. and that person has the ultimate taco experience, only to completely not realize that I have saved her/him years and miles of leg work and have led him/her to mecca for free and then a few days later, he/she shows me a taco from, say, the far inferior taco bus in Wallingford. A taco from a taco bus, yes, but not THE taco from THE taco bus. So I understand his look and it's a little heartbreaking for me. It's a "why did I even try to bring light, happiness, magic and my special insider knowledge to this person" kind of a feeling.

To save face, I tell Helen to tell him, "I know your breakfast place will be number one, for sure." This cheers him up a little bit.

As Helen, Jessica and I walk up the steps to the building, Helen says, "He talks too much!"

Yesterday, I bought something I knew he wouldn't approve of (more rice noodles with pork and spring rolls), so I just stuffed it in my leather bag. Helen wasn't outside to meet us, but when she got to class, she asked me, "Did that guy check your food today?" No, I told her, I hid it from him because I wasn't in the mood for inspection!

"Did that guy check your food today?" made me crack up all day.

Anyway, yeah, it's still raining. It hasn't stopped all day. The rainy season lasts from April to November, evidently...usually it rains once in the early afternoon, around one o'clock, and then again around 6. But today it has been raining all day, a mix between Seattle and Costa Rica - costant and hard. When I get home, I am starving - no market food to sustain me all day- so I venture out to get some of the alley fried chicken I wrote about on one of my first nights in the alley. It's still a staple. I pass Thuy's house and she and her parents are sitting in chairs, reading. They look so cozy, just out of the rain in their little open house. She lights up when I approach them and she introduces me to her parents.

"Are you American?" her father asks me. I say yes and mention to Thuy that he speaks good English.

"That's all he knows," she says, very respectfully. We chat for a while and we make a date to cook again on Sunday (!!) We are going to meet at her house at 3:00 and we will take a bus to Ben Than Market where we will buy a live Elephant Ear Fish and it will be killed and we will bring it back and we will deep fry it and make it into Elephant Ear spring rolls.

Can't wait to give you the long version of that story.

And then...well, I find a neighborhood store (in someone's house, of course) and the woman there coaches me on which is the best dried rice noodle and finds me some flour (I'm going to pan fry some of that market squid for lunch tomorrow), but she doesn't have salt and pepper separately. I realize that I haven't been to the supermarket for weeks now. The only thing I can't get in my neighborhood seems to be cheese (and salt and pepper, but we can't find that anywhere anyway.) I have decided to remove cheese from my diet, just because I am here now and I want my neighborhood market to be my source. I have lost weight since being here - only a couple of pounds, but I'm sure by the way I write about food, you all have been wondering. Maybe it's because I don't eat cheese anymore...? Or because I run around having so many clothes made...kind of like Carrie Bradshaw's "shopping is my cardio" line. (Katherine calls this conflict my "Vietnam Burden.")

And after the store? To the Bum Bum for a massage with Tran, our favorite girl. Katherine and I are in the midst of making her a mix tape of slow R & B - hoping that, #1 She will like the music and #2 That it will replace the elevator music we must endure. Now, home, going to watch a pirated DVD (Son of Rambo) with my roommates. The rain is still another entity outside. Seems it will never stop~

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

RITA! SNACK!


I think of you, Rita, every day on my motorbike ride home from school. Here’s why: Yes, it’s the RITA restaurant! It's the first place we will go if you ever come to visit(I think Nam was bothered that I wanted to take a picture of this...maybe that is why he stopped at the statue of Uncle Ho yesterday, so that I would be a proper tourist!).


This post is dedicated to RITA because her friend/student Liane sent me the following question in an email, and I am going to answer it here for all of you:

Hi, I understand you’re in Vietnam and I think that’s amazing. If you’re too busy I understand but I really wanted to touch base with you. Mrs. Ireland says you love food and guess what, food is what I'm doing my senior project on- cultural food to be exact. I was wondering, for starters, what is the biggest difference in how people eat and what people eat in Vietnam as opposed to America? If you have time it would be great to hear from you, I’m really interested in travel and culture and would love to hear any cool stories. Thanks!!

Ok, so...there is a little strip right outside of RITA, where I recently discovered my new favorite snack. Now that I have discovered it, I see it everywhere, and it’s kind of like the breakfast rice ladies…how have I missed this wonderment until now? My new favorite snack, now, in my mind, looks like the RITA lights, only they are not only lit but they're flashing: PAPAYA! NOODLES! LIME! PEANUTS! TAMARIND! YUMMY THINGS I DON’T QUITE RECOGNIZE! (I know the RITA restaurant doesn’t have an exclamation point after it, but if you know Rita Ireland, she should have an exclamation mark after her name, so that is how I see it.)


So, Laine, my answer to your question begins with this: Vietnamese food is SWEET! SALTY! CRUNCHY! And CHEWY! (Rule #1) all at the same time! And RITA! STREET offers what I find to be the best of this world. Women sit on little plastic chairs that are very close to the ground and set out a cart with about nine containers, all filled with goodies, such as dried shrimp, chewy tamarind bits, dried onion, powdered something or other... You get to choose your goodies- as many as you want-- out of the nine containers, and these women will mix these items in a big plastic bowl with shredded papaya, dry, flat, three-inch long noodles, and lime. The moisture softens the noodles, and after mixing they put the whole concoction into a plastic bag and stick the chopsticks in it. Oh, and they also throw in a couple of tiny quail eggs, too.


HOW! HAVE! I! MISSED! THIS!??


I think about this snack all the time now. I found a SSCC Snack Lady right outside of my school, and even though I really don’t like to leave during the day, I have been making exceptions. Monday, Tuesday and Today (soon).


Sweet, salty, crunchy, chewy…so many foods here fit into this most brilliant category. Take, for example, the salad rolls. Fresh, crunchy lettuce and basil, shrimp and rice noodles are wrapped up with rice paper and dipped into peanut sauce.


Or the “Number One” breakfast Nam showed me last week: strips of noodles laced with nuts, topped with a savor y, crunchy doughnut, basil, bean sprouts, what looks like a chunk of bologna but tastes divine, all covered with fish sauce. Or the ban Xeo, which is a French-influenced crepe, made with shrimp, bean sprouts and pork. This you break apart, wrap up in lettuce leaves and basil and dip into the fish sauce (just like you do with my favorites, turmeric rice cakes…small rice cakes topped with shrimp and wrapped in the same greenery and dipped in the fish sauce.)


Even the soups come with fresh vegetables and sauces and limes, and morning rice (purple, green, yellow, white, with beans or lentils, without beans or lentils) comes with coconut or nuts or pate or peanuts or crunchy onions or, again, the tiny quail eggs. Jellos, too. They come in cup sizes and are always layered with something, like custard or cake with nuts.


Now, Rule #2, I think, would have to be FRESHNESS!


Everything is fresh here. Fish in restaurants or our market are live until you eat them. Often you will see a crab escaping down the alley, or like last Saturday, Katherine saw a fish wriggling away and the seller just yelled out to a shopper something about catching it. The passerby was thrown a net and she simply just kicked the fish into the net and returned it to the seller.
Creatures still come with bones here. Our American boneless chicken and fish would be considered tasteless to Vietnamese people. The bones are where the flavor is. Soup broths are cooked all day long and many pho eaters won’t eat until 8 or 9 because the broth is not developed enough before then. As I mentioned before, huge bones are piled up beside the Pho carts (the dinosaur bones)!


People here buy what they need for one day…they don’t have big refrigerators. They buy tons of fresh vegetables (huge plates of vegetables are served with everything here…especially bean sprouts and basil, along with their meat), and do the same thing the next day and the next. They make their ice cream on- site. Coconut ice cream tastes like smashed up coconuts with sweet cream, because that is what it is!


Rule #3 is a semi-true stereotype: THEY! EAT! EVERYTHING!


My Chinese and American sixth graders joke with the Vietnamese kids about eating dog. The Vietnamese kids have a funny, uncomfortable reaction to it, because many people in this country really do eat dog. But it is the exception. However, at the beginning of the year, I learned that most Vietnamese kids don’t name their animals...guess why! I think the real truth is that this is not a culture of waste.


You see it all on the menus, if not in restaurant windows. The other day, Katherine and I saw a skinned raccoon in a window. And menus list brains and livers and intestines of various animals. Pig tails and snouts grace one stall very close to my castle and I must pass it every day. They eat snake and lizard and anything that moves. Lots of frogs (bundled up, live, in groups of five) and eels and snails, too. One street over from our alley serves a lot of this food. Clams and snails are dipped into a lime and salt mixture, or are made with a chewy tamarind sauce. SWEET! SALTY! CHEWY! CRUNCHY!


Rule #4 is the most important rule: COMMUNITY!


Everything in Vietnam is about family and community and so eating is also about family and community. Late at night, buildings are barred with metal gates and locked securely, but from early morning until about ten pm, side shops and restaurants spread out onto the sidewalks. Mostly, restaurants provide seating on red or blue plastic chairs and plastic tables that are easy to move around. People here sit very low to the ground, sometimes only inches above it so that they are really sitting on their haunches. Sometimes when I am offered a seat like this, I think I will never be able to get up out of it (especially if I have been eating any of the above mentioned food). So if you look down our alley from morning to night (which represents most alleys in HCMC), you will see people sitting in big groups around tables, or crouched in the doorways of their homes, and usually they will have a soup bowl of noodles in their hands (pho). And they will be using both spoons and chopsticks to eat it. It seems that people must eat noodles all day long. Every shop is full every time I pass, whether during breakfast, lunch or dinner.

So, Liane, there you go. Let me know how your senior project goes...

I’m going to go out and get a snack RIGHT! NOW!
And when I get back, I’m hoping for a ONE! MINUTE! POEM! by RITA! (who is sweet, salty, crunchy and chewy, too~)

Shades of Persian Blue Conflict

This morning I am planning to head through the market and out to meet Nam when Sweet Seamstress sees me and gives me a dress that I ordered a few weeks ago and that she had just fitted for me on Sunday (usually a perfect fit is only achieved after at least one alteration session). I have the time, so I go back to the castle and climb the four flights of stairs and put it on: it's gorgeous...according to Wikipedia's Shade of Blue, it's a Persian Blue (which is so perfect, with me teaching Ancient and all...next I am going for Phoenician purple):


and this time it fits perfectly. (When I double check this perfection with Katherine, she says, did you ever use to accomplish this much in the mornings at home?) I decide I must wear it to school. Because I bought the material from Nam's sister, I go by her house. His other sister is out selling eggs (the one was making fishcake sandwiches the other day) and the fabric sister is in her shop. They recognize the material right away and they both come out and fawn over how pretty it is. The whole alley is appreciating my dress.

When Nam drops me off after school and we pass his sister's house, I point to my dress and tell him I bought the material from her. Of course, my mother already knows this. And I also learn that he knows two more words in the English language, because when I get off of his bike, he points to my dress and then back to the shop and says, "Buy more!"

At the risk of sounding completely insane with this tailoring business, I had a different shirt to show off to a different person in the neighborhood yesterday. Thuy (pronounced "Twey"-- not "Twee"--I am told by Tarn that "Twee" means a very bad odor and that I was calling Thuy a very bad odor at our Sunday cooking class) helped me pick out a lovely light torquoise color last week (she said it would bring out the red in my hair) and I had Katherine's sister's tailor at the center market (Ben Than) make the shirt because she is so quick. Sweet Seamstress does a really nice job, but she is really slow and I don't want to burden her too much, since she works all day, every day.

So I have a bit of a conflict of interests, don't I? Thuy and SS are like sisters; Thuy will tell her I had a shirt made by someone else. And Thuy will know that I bought material from Nam's sister...their shops are only one alley block away from each other. Loyalties run deep around here, and suddenly, I have deep loyalties with two parties. It all used to be so simple two months ago. The only answer I can think of is to have TONS of clothes made, using ALL of the fabric women, Sweet Seamstress and other, discreet tailors (and I will have to hire another driver to drive me to them, for sure). Do you see any other way out of this? As usual, I would appreciate advice. Band members? Maybe the fabric women don't really care--I have no idea if they do or not-- but I know another woman who does and he drives me to and from school everyday.

On the way home today, after an errand in District One, Mother Nam stops and tells me to get off and take a picture of this statue:



It's "Bac Ho"- "Bac" must mean "Uncle." Ho Chi Minh. The people sure love him.





Behind it is the famous post office of District One, in the French -influenced area.

When we get home, I decide that I'm ready for clams in my life again. The place that T, K and I went a few weeks ago is a five minute walk from here, but I haven't been back since the snake-though-the-nose-and-out-the-mouth trick. I just haven't been able to get the association of the two events out of my mind even though I didn't even see it.
But I'm over it now and ready to move into a much heavier Vietnamese Shellfish Phase. On my way to Seafood Restaurant Street, I find a lady with a cart-O-clams. Sometimes the vendors on the street are offering clams that have already opened and I stay way clear of those, but hers are clean and closed and she's got some cooking in lemongrass broth. I buy some to go and return to the castle to eat my after-school treat.

As I sit in the castle in my Persian blue dress eating lemongrass clams after teaching Ancient History to 6th graders, I realize that I feel pretty good. Pretty, Pretty Good, as Larry David might say.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Oi Vay

Everyone calls Nam my mom now, because that is exactly what he is. He has a sixth sense about where I am (he found me on my way home from a completely different gym Saturday afternoon and whisked me home for free) and plus I think his his family informs on me. And, I have to try so hard to please him.

This morning, because of his "You are boring and 'eat bread' every day- change it up" speech last week (how dare anyone call my eating habits boring), I order the noodles with egg roll and pork in the market and keep my to-go container out so I can show him when I get to the street. I undo the dreaded rubber band (how DO they wrap it so tightly?) because, as I knew would be the case, he wants to know what I have. But he is nonplussed, and nonplussed is too enthusiastic of a word for what he is. He merely starts his '59 Super Cub and we head straight in to oncoming traffic (that's the way they get across the street and it actually makes sense to me now.) Yes, it stung (not the traffic - the dismissal).

But when we arrive at school, he hops right off his bike and ascends the stairs to grab Helen Our Daily Translator about All Things Food. Helen says, "He says to tell you that what you bought is probably not good. The kind that is sold in his village is way better than what you bought."

Nam is my mother. He is my Vietnamese Jewish Mother Stereotype whom I just can't seem to please.

The other day I am entertaining the staff at lunch with stories of Nam. One guy says, "Hey, I know a driver who speaks English and who has a cell phone. He would be indispensable if you want to get rid of that guy." Alice and I shoot each other a look and she is offended for me. "Marjie has no intention of 'getting rid' of her guy." It's so cool when someone who deserves it is slapped with a French accented tone.

Some people just don't get IT, you know? An English -speaking driver with a cell phone? BOR-ING. I prefer the ones who lose their cell phones and helmets and who get flat tires and who take me by bridal shops to meet their daughters after work (personally).

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Saturday: Cooking and Karaoke

(Continued from post below): Thuy shows up about fifteen minutes early for my cooking lesson and she goes straight to the refrigerator. Where is the fish? The vegetables? Do you have sugar? She looks at my salt/pepper mix and scowls. Where is your pepper? You can't use this! NO! (My sweet seamstress says NOOOO in the same way...I feel so ashamed when they use the tone). She gets on her cell phone and within two minutes, Sweet Seamstress comes from three doors down with pepper. These two are very close; I'm not sure if they are related, but they work together. Thuy is the one we were led to when we first ordered clothes to be made.


They both let me know that the salt and pepper mix is not good. I want to tell them that I really tried to get salt and pepper separately, but it is a lost cause. I just say OK, I will try to learn the difference between the mix and the separates.


Then Thuy goes to work, mixing the marinated salmon (only it's not quite salmon) with oil, green onions, sugar, a seasoning I've never seen before, and PEPPER with chopsticks. She needs a ceramic bowl. She can't believe we don't have one. But she settles for plastic. She puts the salmon bowl in our pot when the water boils and she puts the lid on to steam it. This will take 20 minutes. While she chops the tomatoes and cucumbers, she relaxes a little and we try to talk. I show her some pictures of Seattle and she really has no idea where it is. She has never heard of California, which surprises me. All Vietnamese people seem to know California and they know that there are tons of Vietnamese people there.


I ask her if she has any children (one of the first questions people ask you here because family and community is everything to them). She says "No, I am very lonely." She tells me that she lives with her parents at the shop. They are 75. Her mother cooks and she buys and sells, every day. She takes care of them, and she has lived here her whole life.

I say to her, "Thank you for coming to help me" and she says "NOOOOOO!" The same tone. "Maggie, Maggie no say to Thuy 'thank you.'"

"Why?" I ask her. Actually, I do know that Americans say thank you way more than other cultures do, and I'm not surprised with her answer, because it is a similar thing in China. "I like you. Maggie no say thank you. I watch how you treat people in market. I like you."

It's this thing...if you are friends with someone, you don't need to say 'thank you." She has just made me her friend. She changes the subject. "What food you eat in Vietnam?" This is a hard question because I don't know the names for so many things. "Pho..?" I say, meekly. She disapproves.

"Pho, NO every day! Only sometimes. Rice, rice, fish and vegetables, good. Energy." Tarn comes through the door and while the fish steams and the rice cooks, she gives us a lesson on naming vegetables. She goes through our refrigerator and names things for us. "Did you buy today? OK, you eat today. Tomorrow you be sick if you eat." She asks about Katherine. I tell her Katherine has a stomach ache. She goes to the fridge and gets ginger out and tells me how to make a remedy for stomach aches (just cut the ginger and place it in boiling water, let it sit, drink it).

"Why no teach in Seattle? Why teach in Vietnam?"

Another hard question and answer. "I want to teach in Vietnam," I say.

I ask her for the second time if she will join us for dinner. "NO! Maggie no ask Thuy. Thuy help Maggie, Maggie in Vietnam."

"Thank you. (oops) But, how do I help Thuy?" She pauses and thinks, then I say, "Maggie help Thuy when she comes to America?" She thinks this is hilarious. She sets the table for Tarn and me and sets the fish and vegetables in the middle of the table with Tarn's bananas (they eat these for dessert). She shows us how to eat with chopsticks and spoons (the spoon catches what the chopsticks drop).

So it's a bit uncomfortable because she is just sitting there, watching us. We both take a bite and...wow, it is tasty. The only "American"equivalent that even comes close would be to compare it to teriyaki salmon. Only it's not teriyaki and it's not salmon. It's a very complex mix of sweet, and salty and crunchy - which is my favorite thing about Vietnamese food.

"It's delicious!" I say.

"REALLY?" She is pleased, possibly surprised, or at least acting so.

"Really!" Tarn and I both give the international thumbs up sign and she laughs.

"REALLY?" She repeats.

While she sits there watching us try to remove the fish bones, we talk about a lot of things. We tell her about going to Ben Tre and about the Elephant Ear fish. "You like?"

"Yes, we loved."

"I teach you how to make. Buy fish at Ben Thanh (the touristy main market downtown by our first hotel). Buy everything else in market." And she writes it all down. Then, she says, "I go now." And it feels really funny not to say 'thank you', but "Maggie no say 'thank you' to Thuy." I guess. Oh, and before she goes, she points at Tarn and says, "You, wash up!" Which is perhaps the best part of the story. So, yes, all of a sudden, I have myself a cooking teacher, and more importantly, a friend. I am a lucky person.

Oh, and I didn't even tell you what I did after the market, before my cooking lesson. I went to 2:00 karaoke with Katherine and Jen (another primary school teacher) to celebrate Tu's birthday. Tu is the one who picked me up from the airport and I've only seen her once since then. But she and her friends rented a private karaoke room at 2:00 in the afternoon because they all work at night, mostly teaching English. I have never done this, even though I was in China for five weeks. Five Vietnamese girls and the three of us...we just traded off singing songs and eating fruit and drinking juices. I don't know how this happened, but Katherine and I scored a "99" when we sang "Summer Nights" - she did John Travolta's part and I did Olivia's. It was the high score of the karaoke afternoon. Other highlights - when we all sang "Feliz Navidad" - with some parts in English, some in Spanish, and some in Vietnamese. We also all sang Carpenters' songs together. It was so much fun that I hated it when it wasn't my turn. I think next time I will rent my own room for the afternoon. Oh, and as you sing, the screen shuffles through a series of images from all over the world. One of them: Seattle, with the King Dome!

Last night, I went out to dinner with Katherine and her friends from the States (actually she knows them through her sister). Raven and Carina just graduated from Brooklyn Law School and Erin just earned her Masters in Creative Writing from Utah State in SLC. They are starting their journey here and are seeing Asia for a few months to rest after taking the bar. We went to the coolest restaurant and ordered a ton of food and told traveling stories and had a great time.


Yesterday someone asked me what I had going this weekend and I said "Nothing really."

Friday, October 17, 2008

These Are the People in my Neighborhood

This morning I'm doing my morning market walk (only Saturdays and Sundays the market is bigger and busier and I get to linger for as long as I want) and I stop by the material ladies who "our seamstress" goes to to get some dark material to cover my windows (so much light comes in I can't sleep in). They have a wooden disply table filled with fabrics and one sits on top of the display in a little chair that is cut into the wood - so it looks like she is on the same level as the material - while the other runs and gets things in the house, measures, etc. They are extremely gracious and I wave to them down their alley every morning when I pass.

Last week, the one who sits on the display made quite an effort to talk to me. With very little English, she communicated that she wanted me to know that I had a friend in Vietnam, and if I ever needed anything, she would help me with all of her heart. She is about my age, and very beautiful.

While I am in the midst of my purchase this morning, this woman (I will know her name by tonight) asks me if I have eaten yet (they say "have you eaten rice?" for every meal). I tell her 'no' and ask her what I should eat. She thinks about this, but before I put too much stress on her like I did to Nam, I ask her about the woman sitting across from her in the alley: she sells (what looks like) marinated salmon in a big metal bowl.

She nods that it is good and I make a motion that I will buy a fillet. Fabric Woman looks shocked. She pantomimes..."You mean...you are going to buy something that you have no idea how to cook!!?" I can tell she is kind of impressed. She gets out of the display seat and comes over. She and the salmon woman go through all of the steps necessary to cook this fish, but she is not satisfied. She grabs my hand and leads me into her kitchen (most of their shops are right outside their houses). She points to sugar, salt and some kind of seasoning that looks like salt but isn't. You cook this in oil and you add just so much of this and so much of this, but not too much.

She sends me next door to the shop that sells the seasoning and when I return with the correct ingredient, she and the salmon lady, once again, go over all of the steps. Make sure you just use this much of this seasoning, or it will taste very bad!! I can tell she doesn't have faith that I can pull it off. She climbs back into her chair, thinks for a moment, then asks me what time I plan to cook it. Ah ha. Is this going where I think it is? I say I don't know. She says that if it's at a time that she is free, she will help me.

It's one of those moments. One of those really really good moments. She is free at five. She knows where I live. She tells me to be sure to pick up cucumbers and tomatoes to go with it.

I'm having my first Vietnamese cooking lesson at five!

Then I do my shopping and stop by Nam's sister's house to buy eggs. Today, however, she is aslo selling fishcake sandwiches and three of the girls from the Bum Bum are there ordering them. "Hi!" they say, and they all giggle. Then Nam's daughter shows up. She says "Hi!" and giggles, too. Today, away from her shop and her father, she seems much more comfortable. Then she, Nam's sister, and the three Bum Bum girls all show me how to stack my sandwich: with tomatoes, cilantro and hot sauce. They wrap it for me and with about six full bags of vegetables and squid and rice puddings, I head back to the castle. T and K have both been sleeping while I've had my "Number One" morning. I try to think who I can tell, and am relieved to remember that I can just tell my blog. Funny, huh?

Stay tuned. Pictures of cooking lessons to follow later tonight!

Scriber/Turtle Nostalgia

I've been wanting to post this picture all week, but with no wireless at home obviously my blog has gone pictureless. Anyway: This is Megan Gallagher, one of my students from Scriber Lake High School. She was awarded Student of the Month a few weeks ago, and she is just this really amazing teenager who has the soul of an 80 year-old. She was one of the main players in making our Costa Rica trip happen last spring. My parents sent me this picture last week, right before my trip to the Delta (and if you can't see the writing, she talks about the CR trip being a highlight for her). The place we stayed in the Delta Jungle Paradise-- Megan, Justine, Chris and all other Scriber CR trip readers-- reminded me so much of that place we stayed by the beach with the hammocks and the trails. Waking up to jungle sounds and all..it just brought back many good memories. Then...when I got home Sunday night, I turned on the Discovery Channel to see a documentary about the Leatherback Sea Turtles: they showed Leatherback digging her nest on the beach. It was pretty cool to be watching something like that on TV that I got to see live. I'm going to write about how much I love my 6th graders, but I do miss Scriber students, and you all have been on my mind lately.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

A-Net's Favorite Character, Again (and Mine, Too)

When Nam drops me off this morning, he gets off his bike, grabs a student translator, 6th grade Helen this time (my sixth graders are always around, for some reason) and tells her to tell me that I "eat bread" too much. Every day. What he means is that I eat the sandwiches every day and he is getting tired of the monotony of my eating habits. You need to change it up, he tells Helen to tell me.

So Brian, I take your advice after school. Nam asks if I want to go home, and I tell him I am hungry. He panics...I can see the panic in his eyes. We are at the nasty intersection when we have this conversation and one of my students is right next to me on the back of her mother's motorbike. Nam knows that the kids with the yellow and blue uniforms will translate, so while we are motorbike to motorbike, he asks her to ask me what kind of food I want to eat. I tell her to tell him that he should take me somewhere good...he's the one who knows all of the good places.

What this answer does to him is send him into a tailspin -a kind of tailspin I recognize well. When people ask me to choose the restaurant - well, I just can't decide. Do I go down a new or an old path? It's just so so hard. Sometimes it really gets me down. For the past year I just defaulted to the taco bus so that made it easy. Anyway, Nam is overwhelmed. He throws his hands up a few times in bewilderment, then takes a turn down a street I have not seen before. He motions at many restaurants and chats away about them. Finally, he does a U-Turn and stops at one. It is open to the street and many workers in hot pink shirts line the back, rolling up salad rolls. He motions to them on the menu and I tell him I'll take three of each (I actually know my numbers now).

When we get back to the alley, he goes straight to his aunt and sister's house by the Bum Bum and summons the same nephew who translated last night. He asks me again...what kind of food do you want to know about? While I am talking to the nephew, Nam disappears inside the house and comes out with some deep fried spring rolls. I ask if they are homemade and they are...they are yummy. He then crosses the street and gets the neighbor who speaks really good English because (I find out) he works for a travel agency. This man has been commanded by Nam to tell me about the best restaurants on the street. He lists many that we have been to, but mentions a place that has noodles and crab and says that it is famous in the area. He also tells me that we have moved into one of the best food streets, and I know this is true.

K, T and I try the place tonight. Two men stand outside with the hottest woks you have ever seen; flames lick the rounded sides and we sweat just standing near them. They work the ladels and the oil and the rice like Benihana masters. Finally, we order something, but it's in Vietnamese so we don't exactly know what it is. Inside, I see a teenaged girl and sure enough, she is able to translate the menu for us and we find that we have ordered three plates of noodles with liver and fat. We try to cancel this (and think we have) and take the girl's recommendation for crab fried rice and Singapore fried noodles, but soon seven plates of food (three of them with liver and fat) show up on our table. It's really embarrassing. The table of foreigners: two plates of food for each. The grease and carbohydrates are OK (at least what the girl recommends is good), but we stay away from the rubbery liver and fat. Like everything else, it's just the experience that matters.

This weekend I am going to write more about school and my sweet sixth graders, but for now, this is a sad parting note for the day (for those of you who have been reading since day one): Cynthia's health has never improved since her hospital stay...her blood clots have gotten worse and the stress of everything on top of that is too much for her. Her doctor here told her that she has to go home. She is boarding a plane on Saturday. I am sad, but I know it's the best thing for her. I know that these two months have changed her and stretched her, etc., but I am still sad.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Balcony Scene

Here’s a scene that really should have been performed on the R & J Balcony, but it takes place on the ground floor:

Scene background: Nam is supposed to pick me up at 5:30, but he is late. I have a meeting with the landlord and the guy who set up our wireless at 6:00 (our connection has been down for three days—I posted from school yesterday). I wait ten minutes, then finally must hire someone else to drive me home. “Someone Else” is horrible and I hate him. I make it (barely alive) home right before 6. Katherine is at soccer and Tarn is at his martial arts class, so I am alone. The two men speak very little English and I have sent them a text without much explanation of our problems.

Now, the scene opens with me greeting the two men at the door and then attempting to convey technical difficulty through pantomime. I know Dennis, especially, can picture this, and he is laughing (because I cannot convey it using words). For ten minutes, I explain how the wireless “says” it’s working but how it’s not, and how the electricity keeps going off for hours after showers and how we want to get a new cable package (one that carries the BBC) before the election.

In the middle of this pantomime, the doorbell rings. It’s Nam with his nephew who speaks a little English, and Nam is looking really depressed. He wants to know why I didn’t wait for him at school. I tell him, through his nephew, that I waited ten minutes, but that I had a meeting and had to get home. Nam wants me to know how sorry he is, but that traffic was terrible tonight (it was). He wants to give me 15000 VND back for the missed ride. By his mopey countenance, you might think I have fired him. He tries to give me money for the missed ride (remember I paid him for the week) but I tell his nephew that he should keep the money. I knew he would eventually come, and it was horrible traffic. He did nothing wrong. Nam keeps explaining the same things, how he got there at 5:40 and how I wasn’t there. He is not reading the social situation at all. I think I know how his daughter feels.

Now enter the cleaning lady, Tang, that we are hiring. She has arrived with Phouc, our Vietnamese teacher (she is Phouc’s sister), to see the house so we can make a list of cleaning supplies to purchase. Getting a cleaning lady is scandalous enough, right (not for here, of course, but for you readers) but we have been trying to set this up for a month (and have been putting off all cleaning since the party).

In case you cannot picture this scene clearly, I now have six Vietnamese people in my (dirty) front room and all of them want me to clarify things for them.

Then our candle neighbor across the alley drops on by. She has stored her drink cart in our entryway over the weekend and is here to retrieve it. Perfect -- why not now? She begins to tell Phouc a long story about how she sometimes stays home to watch our house…she is so worried about it. Phouc is trying to translate all of this to me, adding things like “poor people are the best people on the earth” and I do wonder for a moment if the police will be called for this party, too~
To tell you the truth, I don’t remember how I finally got mopey Nam to leave, or how long it was before Tarn and Pretty Lady finally came through the door to save me from my Technical Hell, but at last it was just me and my cleaning lady. I’m going to write that again: It was just me and my cleaning lady.

She starts tomorrow…

End scene.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Dark Alley Beauty and Soul Breakfast Food

Dark Alley Beauty

Sometimes when Tarn takes a shower downstairs, the castle power goes out. Sometimes when two castle dwellers shower at the same time, the castle power goes out. But not always. Kind of like the traffic laws: some people obey some of the laws some of the time. Because I am Rapunzel at the top of the castle, I have no idea when Tarn is in the shower on the ground level. Tonight, upon my return from the gym, I shower, as does Tarn when he returns with Pretty Lady (his bike, in case you missed that one). This time, the castle lays down its electric law. So it’s 8:00 and the power is out and it’s pitch black. My hair is wet and the castle will now withhold power for an unspecified amount of time. Last week it withheld all night and I had to sleep in the R & J Balcony room because upstairs was just too muggy without air conditioning.

So what do you do when your hair is soaking wet and you are in a dark castle in an alley in District One of Ho Chi Minh City? You go to your alley to get your hair dried and straightened. Only, unbelievable…The Bum Bum is taking the night off! Katherine has two visitors from the States and of course she wants to show off our personal beauty shop, but they are already mopping up for the night. She and her friends decide to walk the ¼ mile to get the classy hot stone massages and I decide to wander through the neighborhood with my wet head.

Something special is happening tonight; the altars are in the alleys and incense is burning. I love walking by the alley temple at night, too, and tonight it is lit and smoking with incense. Whatever the occasion, people are still working and watching TV, and I have my choice of salons to visit. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which places function as salons…they look just like homes.

One place is rather dark so I’m not sure, but I see a sink and a head dryer and two women sitting on the floor with very young girls. I make the motion: can you dry my hair? They are surprised; they are not a fluorescent salon so they probably don’t get outside customers. The woman who dries and straightens my hair is the best I’ve had yet. She is so careful she takes a whole hour to do it. Her friend sits in the chair next to us and they chat, while the young girls sit in front of me on the floor and just stare at me and my strange hair (the sun has made it a little red). Near the end, a shy teenage girl appears and I know she has been sent for. She nods at me and blushes.

“Do you speak English?” I ask her, because I know that is why she is here, and most teenagers speak at least a little.

Most likely, she has never spoken to a native English speaker before. She tries to form a word but can’t. I try again.

“What is your name?”

This time she answers, and maybe she gains some confidence. I think the woman doing my hair is her mother; her ‘mother ‘ says something to her.

“My…my mother wants to know. Has she hurt you?”

It’s always so interesting to know what they are wondering. “No, no, she did a very good job.”

Her mother looks very proud (about both her daughter and the hair) and says something else. “Where are you from?” This goes on for a few minutes. They want to know: what is my job and where do I live and do I like Vietnam? The girl continues to blush. Again, am I pleased with my hair? I tell her I am very pleased with my hair and her mother communicates to me how much she hopes I will return.

Of course, I will.

Nam and Soul Food

Yesterday, I give Nam a box of Durian coconut rice candy from my trip to Ben Tre. He doesn’t really know what to do. He doesn’t smile, but he’s not mad either. He indicates that that should be his payment for the ride. No, it’s for you, I say, and I have an AIS student ask him: Can I pay you for the whole week now? This is really a contract. Now he looks happy. And he finally thanks me for the candy with a shrug. I wonder which social structure rule I have offended?

He’s late picking me up after the gym, though, despite our new formal agreement…this time, his story is that he lost his Tweety helmet. Apparently, it flew off his bike, never to be seen again. He plays out this story about three times. But he has a new one. It’s black. Do I like it? I think he likes to spend his extra money.

This morning, on our way to school, he points to a mass of people by the street. I know what he wants…he wants me to try his favorite breakfast. He asked me once last week, but we were running kind of late and though this may surprise many of you, I do put my job before my stomach (mostly) (unless I just can’t). But today I am free so I say yes, of course. When I say a mass of people, I mean a mass, and they are all Vietnamese. But Nam works his way to the cart like an expert and asks me a few questions: Do I want bean sprouts? Basil? I can see it’s something I’ve had before, the ribbon noodles with the deep fried savory dough and mystery meat topped with fish sauce. He takes my order very seriously.

When we get to school he motions one of the students over (usually they are dismounting from their parents’ motorbikes when they get chosen to translate for me and Nam). This time, it’s 6th grade soft-spoken Selena. He wants her to tell me how to eat my breakfast. 1) Don’t eat your sandwich first, eat this. 2) Don’t eat your rice first, eat this. 3) Eat it now, while it’s hot. 4) Pour the fish sauce over the fried dough and let it soak in a little, but not too much. 5) When it has soaked in, mix everything together and eat it. 6) It should be both crunchy and chewy. 7) Eat it now, while it is hot. 8) Be sure to pour the sauce all over.

Poor Selena, she just keeps translating and translating. She has no idea how important her services are. When I get inside, I follow his instructions to a T. Yes, I have had this breakfast before, but of course Nam is right: this is about ten steps above what I have had. And the mystery meat…well, it may look like bologna, but wow, it doesn’t taste like it. It’s layers of flavors. My colleagues in the staff room ask me about my feast and I tell them that my driver is introducing me to the food of Saigon. They have never heard of such a thing ( and they all have drivers, too).

When we are on our way home tonight, I know exactly what he’ll do, and he does it. Even though the cart is not there in the evenings, he points to where it stands in the mornings and wants to know: how did I like it? I give him a thumbs up and tell him it was soooo delicious. Every once in a while Nam surprises me with some English he pulls out of nowhere, and he does this now. He gives the thumbs up, too, and says, “Number One!” Now he is really happy.

I must agree with my driver. My driver who knows good food. My driver who knows that I know good food, too and who feels happy when I pronounce his taste 'Number One.' Hmmm...just like someone else I know...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Mekong, You Read (Thank you, Dennis, for that post title- remember, from the competition?)

The Mekong River, or The Nine Dragons River as the Vietnamese call it (because of all of its tributaries), is the 11th-longest river in the world. From the Tibetan Plateau it runs through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong Delta is where the Mekong River empties into the sea and My Tho is the city that is called "The Gateway to the Mekong." My Tho is just a few hours south of HCMC, and Tarn and I read about a village near My Tho that hosts a guest house in the jungle -The Lonely Planet calls it a "Green Oasis" with great food and free bike rental.


Of course you can book tourist trips in the Backpacker District and they aren't too expensive, but when you're in the mood, finding your own way is a much better (and cheaper) way to go. We're in that mood on Saturday, and we feel we are on a reconnaisance mission for the rest of our friends who want to go, so we get a bus to the station that is supposed to have a bus that will take us to My Tho. We are ushered onto what looks to me like a mini cattle train - but without a gateway to hold the cows in - and I say to Tarn, 'Is this our 'bus' for the next two hours?' He's not sure, but says he thinks that 'two hours' may be an optimistic estimate. The Vietnamese people on the cattle train laugh and smile and are a little shy about us being on the open bus with them, but they are very friendly. So we settle in for what we think will be a long cramped ride, and I am able to get the best shot yet of motorbike travelers:


But it's not going to be a long cramped ride. The mini cattle train takes us to another bus station outside of town, and we have to dismount while it is still moving, but a woman who is making the same transfer helps us understand what we're supposed to do. Then we board a 1/2 size bus and circle the station about ten times, picking up passengers on each round. During this circular game, the people in charge of the bus tell us that it costs 200,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND) ($12) for the trip, for two people. We already know from our book that it should cost 18,000 (approx. $1.10); Tarn shows them the page and the cost and everyone is appalled at the number (NO NO NO NO NO!) except for the woman who transfered with us. She stares straight ahead, dignified. We ask her if this is right and she shakes her head back and forth. No. We look to the people in charge. OK, OK, 100,000 VND. We look to our ally and she shakes her head again. No. We start to get off the bus and they all erupt. NO NO NO NO! OK, 50,000 VND for both! Close enough. We pay.

Then Tammy gets on the bus. Tammy is about 20 years old, cute and kind, speaks English, but it's a kind of English that you cannot trust. She tries to be helpful, but she tells us that the place we're going requires a ferry, then she says, no, we just need to hire a motorbike. She says it's 40,000, and then, no, just 4,000. She really doesn't know. Fortunately, Tarn is sitting near the aisle and he is a bit more patient than I; he continues to try to get communicate with poor Tammy because she really wants to help us. Meanwhile, the woman who acted as ringleader to swindle us begins to ask me 100 questions as if she had not just tried to take all my money. Tammy keeps having to stop confusing Tarn to translate: How old are you? Do you have any children? (everyone asks everyone this...it has to do with how they address people in their language) Where are you from? She even makes me take her picture!

After traveling this way for an hour, Tammy suddenly commands us to get off the bus with her. We don't know what else to do other than to obey. She leads us to what is apparently her parents' home, just one block away. She tells us to sit. Her maid gets us something to drink while Tammy calls her father. Her father appears at the door within minutes driving a mini-van and we are told to get in. We do. Tammy tells us that her father would love to take us on a tour of My Tho before we head across the water to our village. Do we want a tour, or do we want the ferry? Tarn and I don't know what the polite answer is, but it doesn't seem to matter: in Tammy's alternate English universe, within minutes of saying "Thank you, we would enjoy a tour of My Tho" we are at the ferry terminal and within a few more minutes we are on the mighty Mekong.


When we arrive at the other side, we know the oasis is near, but we're not sure how near: The Lonely Planet says it's difficult to find. But Tarn is a map guy and loves this type of challenge, so we walk down a lovely street- it's wide and quiet and lined with palm trees and one-story houses, some of them quite rustic. We stop and buy a grilled banana wrapped in a rice cake from a woman and her two sweet daughters and look at all of the vegetables and fish alongside the road. At one point we see a long jungle path (pictured) and Tarn says, wouldn't it be great if that path leads to our oasis? But we keep walking down the lovely road. We come to what we later think may be the house of a witch: a woman beckons us to come inside her home and she has many witchy things hanging from a long string of ivy that she wants us to buy and she keeps making a sleeping gesture. When we don't buy anything, Tarn says that she will probably put a hex on us that will not allow us to sleep for the rest of our lives.

Soon we feel we have walked far enough and ask for directions and guess what...the jungle path does lead to our oasis. And it's a beautiful oasis near a canal with many separate grass huts for eating and rooms that are rickety but clean. It's such a happy place that even the garbage bins wish you happiness (if you can't see it too well, underneath the gymnast it says "Happiness to Everyone.' We check in and get bikes right away- it's 5 pm by now and we want to ride the 12 kilometers into the nearest city, Ben Tre. What a great evening; it's cool and breezy and the road is wide; if someone had dropped me into this scene from Seattle, the motorbike traffic would have completely frightened me, but now, after HCMC, it's no big deal. We ride out to a bridge where we see some magnificent views of the Mekong at sunset (which my camera does not come even close to capturing). We also take note that this city has a theme, not unlike the streets in HCMC: Ben Tre is a city of coffins and weddings. The frilly dresses that I pictured when Nam took me to his daughter's work are everywhere and these shops are juxtaposed by many, many coffin shops. We also note that no one is eating out. Is there a connection?

When we return to the oasis it's around 8 and we are starving. The gracious host of the hotel recommends the local dish we have read about: deep fried Elephant Ear fish. We're in. Before we know it, two men are catching our Elephant Ear fish in a wooden crate/pond behind our table. Within ten minutes of its death, it is presented to us wholy deep fried. A girl follows with a tray of rice paper and vegetables. She removes the scales and picks off the flaky white meat and places half of it on our plate of rice and the other half she portions onto sheets of rice paper with pineapple, tomato, lettuce, basil, cucumbers and rice noodles. She rolls them up and tells us to dip them into the peanut sauce. The whole dinner is out of this world. We drink the local rice wine and right at the end of dinner while we sit under the palapa, it begins to pour. We are grimy and sweaty from our ride, we're exhausted and full. We were going to venture into town to find karaoke, but you know what? No. We opt for sleep. When we compare notes in the morning, we agree that despite the witches' spell, we have the best sleep since arriving in Vietnam; it's so quiet: we are sleeping with the sounds of the jungle as background music.


I wake up early as usual, and I need to wrap up this post so that I can study the Phoenicians tonight, but there is so much to tell: the morning is just beautiful. I walk through the jungle paths and people are on their way to town: biking, walking and a few motoring. It's paradise. Wherever I go, children run out of their homes and yell and wave "Hello!" For most of them, it's the only English they know, but it is so pure and happy. The same thing happens in our alley: "Hello!" and then when we ask their names, etc, they get really really shy. Anyway, I leave the jungle path for the highway and meet an English speaking man who is waiting for his son to get out of Sunday English school (very common). I ask him where I can find a good breakfast and he knows the perfect place. I get on the back of his motorbike (his son stands in the front) and he speeds me away to another jungle path which we ride down for about 1/2 of a kilometer. It's his aunt's home, and by the way, where he works. Here, throughout the whole country, I am learning, everything is about connection. So it's 8 am by now, and I find myself choosing king prawns out of a pond for my breakfast. And- this is going to make me sound so brave but really I wasn't brave at all about it- he offers me King Cobra wine: There is a big plastic container that looks like it should be in a biology classroom -- because inside is a dead King Cobra sitting in rice wine. Linh, my new tour guide, insists that I taste it and I just sort of end up giving in to peer pressure. It tastes like gamey whiskey. I have only about two drops, but Linh assures me that I will have more strength all day long (remember, it's only 8 am). Whatever. Oh, and to make matters more digusting and dangerous, when we emerge back onto the highway, we hit (and kill) a rooster that runs out in front of the motorbike. I can't believe Linh is able to recover from this hit, but it scares me to death.

I spend the rest of the morning riding the bike down long stretches of highway next to rice fields and water buffalos where I buy lots of coconut/durian/peanut candy wrapped in rice paper (so delicious) from these cute kids (open stands line the highway because this is where the factories are). I also ride down every jungle path I can find because this village is my new vision of paradise. Tarn has his own cool morning adventure, which involves a small Cao Dai temple and a monk down a jungle path. But this isn't his blog, is it?
And as for the return, we are not in the mood for any more adventure. We hire a semi-private bus and pay 60,000 VND each for one ride, all the way back to HCMC. And it's worth every penny of the $2.40 we must pay!